Roads Crooked and Steep – In Quest of Water and Family

Esch Road Beach

Billy here. We left Texas the day after my Gramma’s funeral, eager to find the swimming we have been anticipating while living the in arid highlands. Our first stop on the way to the Great Lakes was Eufaula Lake in Oklahoma, where my right ear got clogged with water and remained clogged for a week. It was a more than a little distracting. As night fell, it stayed hot and sticky as a thunderstorm moved around us but did not drop any real rain. Trying to sleep in the tent was impossible in the muggy heat, so we took a night dunk in the lake as lightning flashed in the distance.

Neither of us had been through the Ozarks so we opted for a detour straight east through Arkansas to swim in the Buffalo River. We curved through Roads Crooked and Steep, as the street signs warned, through lush forests and over ancient hills. Cliffs of rocks flanked the turquoise Buffalo River. We were so gloriously happy about floating in the cool water that we failed to take pictures of this beautiful part of the land. That night we stayed at Greer Crossing in the Missouri Ozarks near the spring fed Eleven Point River. It was the first time in years I had seen a firefly. The camp host was a lovely and talkative woman who told us stories of the local “old-timers” in their 90s. She laughed about how she was warned that she wouldn’t get along with them, but then made ready friends. Now they bring her fresh eggs and vegetables. They still drink spring fed water, keep their dairy in hidden caves and talk of the times when they grew corn in the forested flood plains of the river right in the midst of the trees.

The next day we literally got lost in the corn and soy mazes of Illinois, advertising their seeds from Dupont, Pfizer and Monsanto, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the old Ozark corn farmers, letting the rivers irrigate their forest corn gardens naturally.

Outside of Chicago in thick traffic we were stopped on the highway (it was suspicious, I know, to be the only one going under the speed limit) ostensibly for having a cracked windshield. The cop was very nice, with a pencil mustache, great smile and easy charm, though I’ll have to admit I appreciate black cops more than white cops. Maybe it’s the inherent understanding of privilege and oppression? I knew when he took me into his car for questioning there was more to it. He guessed we were a gay couple (are we that flaming?) and congratulated us when I told him we were just married. Turned out he was a narcotics officer and was probably looking at our New Mexico plates – border states scream contraband apparently. But I put on the charm and he soon didn’t feel the need to search our car. But luckily for us, we aren’t trafficking drugs anyway.

We spent a few fun days around East Lansing with Spence’s sister and her partner, walking along the Red Cedar river and the botanical gardens at Michigan State University, going to Jimmy Buffet night at the baseball game and seeing the Michigan Historical Museum. The company was grand and it was wonderful to meet Spence’s peeps!

We then headed west into Saugatuck, stopping to walk the boardwalk, drink delicious iced coffee on nitro at Uncommon Coffee Roasters and have some yummy fish tacos and a portobello burger at Phil’s, where we doodled like kids. Having lived so long off-grid without running water and making all my food at home from scratch, the extreme luxury of going out to eat and washing my hands in hot running water still seems such a fantastic indulgence that I don’t want to take  for granted. We have been taking full advantage of Spence’s camp kitchen in the jeep, making veggie wraps and stopping at natural food stores on the road. But now that we are here in Michigan, we’ve hit full vacation Captain America Party Mode!

Saugatuck Bar Pictographs

Then we headed north toward Traverse City to see Spence’s parents. On the way we stopped at the Ferry Township Cemetery to visit my paternal great-grandparents’ graves. My great-granddad was a cowboy who had an amicable relationship with the local Anishnaabeg, who called him “He Who Moved Slowly Through the Woods” or so the story goes.

In Traverse City we spent a lovely time getting to know Spence’s nieces and nephew and spending quality time with his folks. We went to the carnival at the Cherry Festival, played at the beach down Esch Road on Sleeping Bear Dunes, watched the kids do magic shows and played some music. I had never imagined that one of my life experiences would be watching a flying dog show while listening to Trace Adkin’s Honky Tonk Badonkadonk, but there we were. Also, I got to see some of Spence’s old art pieces hanging on his parent’s wall for the first time!

P.S. we replaced the cracked windshield on the Jeep.

Spence here: I really wanted to see a coonhound in the Ozarks!  Stereotypes aside, (too many youthful dreams watching “Where the Red Fern Grows”) I have always wanted to see this part of the country. Things always look closer on the map, as in the rear view mirror, but I really thought this side trip was worth it. After splashing in Eufaula Lake during a lightning storm in Oklahoma we turned our green machine towards the Upper Buffalo River (“America’s First National River”) in Northeast Arkansas. I asked a couple of local fellows which way to the river access and they silently pointed down the trail they were on.  After following them for about 100 yards I saw them jump off a rock and disappear. The trail led to a large outcropping where braver folks jump down into a deep pool in the river, probably five stories down. “Maybe if I didn’t have my wallet…” I thought sheepishly. I am actually more afraid than chickens when it comes to jumping off high rocks. I think my past knee injury pretty much killed that impulse a while back.  But the river was stunning so we found good access below and a nice shady picnic spot. Later, I actually got to see a coonhound running alongside the road as we left the area! Did you know I used to work at the the American Kennel Club helping to publish their quarterly magazines? My favorite of the magazines was of course “Coonhound”.

redbone coonhound

We continued travelling north. At one point we were looking for the mysterious Moraine View State Park, somewhere in Illinois.  We ended up close to there, in LeRoy. One tiny brown sign indicated we were near the park, however, after an hour of driving through a soy and corn maze we never found it. I was surprised to see big fancy farmhouses, new grain silos, new John Deer tractors and Cadillacs in the driveways of these farms. After decades of being poor, perhaps farmers all over the country are now cashing in on GMO crops. Its an unfortunate game of ultimate loss for the farmers, the eaters and the planet. (I know its not enough to just exclaim blanket statements like this. What is the answer?  Who has new ideas? Who has old ideas that we are not listening to? It is all our responsibility to take more care. It is easy to blame the person next to us, the corporation, the government… what can we do as individuals? What can we do in our neighborhoods? How can we talk to each other without feeling attacked or defensive about our life choices? I think one of the ways for me is to ask more curious questions about what is actually happening and admit I don’t know the whole story, but I want to know.)

Finally, we arrived at my sister’s and her partner’s house in East Lansing, Michigan. I love their house. They have put in a lot of work and it is very beautiful and comfortable. We really “did” downtown Lansing, and I showed Billy what Midwest fun is all about (a minor league “Lug Nuts” baseball game on “Jimmy Buffet Night”, complete with $5 Corona tallboys and nacho platters). East Lansing has a new brew pub which I’m all about, called “Hop Cat”. “It is very Portland,” my sister said. We visited the Michigan Historical Society and I learned more about my home state in one afternoon than in three years of high school. I really appreciated learning more about the Native Americans in these areas.  Anishinabeg, which depending on what site you read from, means “first peoples”, or “people from whence lowered”. The name stems from the Anishinaabemowin/Anishinaabe related languages spoken by the Odawa, Ojibwe and Algonquin tribes of the area, who once thrived in northern Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Canada in numbers up to 70,000 in the 18th century. With a history so long and with so many distinct tribes, the word “Anishinabeg” feels to me to be similar to saying “Anasazi” in the four corners area. I don’t know if “Anishinabeg” is a more respected name here, as opposed to “Anasazi”, but several tribes still go by this word in parts of their identity. I really would like to have had the chance to read more about it, or more importantly, talk to the people who have the oral traditional history. Thank you so much Alison and Ryan for a meaning-filled visit on many levels.

Onto Traverse City, Michigan, where more fun was to be had.  Billy and I have great timing, as whatever time we arrive somewhere turns out to be just the time we need to be there. My nephew and twin nieces arrived to visit my parents for an exclusive all Grandparents vacation. I have not been able to see them much with all our travelling, so it was truly a wonderful experience. Cherry Festival, Esch Road Beach, West Bay Splash Pad, lake walks and beach sports… and yup, plenty of Michigan Craft Brew to go around. I finally rode a ferris wheel for the first time and I have to say, I was concerned, if not a little scared at the lack of safety. Also, I had a harrowing experience on another carnival ride called “The Freak Out”.  Although I didn’t throw up, the ride did inspire the newly coined saying, “I lost mine on the Freak Out!” My brain has been sloshy for a week.


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